It was midnight before they reached the refugee camp.
Trip had far less trouble navigating through the forest than the rest of the group, which made it a lot easier than he expected to keep an eye on them. The leader – this Raspos guy – actually seemed taken aback at their lack of surprise when the three hidden sharpshooters joined the merry band, and then spent the next half hour trying (and failing) to engage T’Pol in conversation. She had donned the haughty ‘you remind me of something I scraped off of my boot’ expression that Trip knew far too well from the early days of her assignment to Enterprise, and it apparently worked far better against Ekosians than it had Floridians.
For his part, Trip was mostly busy focusing on putting one foot in front of the other while hiding just how badly parts of his body ached. He doubted that T’Pol knew just how much pain he was in at the moment – in college, he’d been tackled by linebackers who hadn’t hit as hard as she had, and he briefly entertained himself by imagining her in football gear, dropping guys twice her size without even breaking a sweat. If he’d been stuck here with Jon or Malcolm, he’d be complaining nonstop, but it just wouldn’t seem very masculine if he started whining about being knocked onto his ass by a tiny slip of a woman, no matter that she was probably twice as strong as he was.
The camp wasn’t much to look at. A ramshackle collection of hastily erected cloth tents and poorly concealed firepits, it stunk of sweat and fear. There were only ten or fifteen people awake as Raspos led them into the site, but Trip could tell that there were probably three or four times that number asleep, whether huddled together in large clumps to share warmth or lurking underneath their poor shelter. Those awake were all men and they were armed with a variety of firearms, some of which looked relatively new (for this planet anyway) while others looked so worn they had to be antiques. None of the men were wearing shoes, despite the snow still on the ground, and every single one of them had a haunted, desperate look in their eyes that Trip had only seen in photographs. It was like he and T’Pol had been dropped into the middle of a war movie.
One of the apparent sentries barreled forward, his face pinched in anger and his hands clutching his rifle so tightly that his knuckles were white. He was a few centimeters shorter than Trip, but very wide, with thick arms and a rough, weathered look about him. T’Pol’s whacky lessons had to be paying off because Tucker realized that he was unconsciously registering things about the man that he doubted would have even occurred to him before. The man was left-handed and had the barest hint of a limp – likely an old break that never healed entirely right. His body language screamed bully; the man shouldered past his fellows with open disdain for them, and, if it was possible, he became even more aggressive as he approached Raspos.
“You go for food and water,” the stocky male growled. His accent was thick and hard to understand, as if he was gargling with marbles while he talked. “And instead, you come back with … this.” He gestured toward Trip and T’Pol as he finished, anger dripping off his words.
“They are refugees, the same as you, Pater Undil,” Raspos replied frostily. He drew himself upright as he spoke and open dislike flashed in his eyes. “Should I have not offered them the same hand of friendship I offered you and yours?” The older man seemed to be on the verge of spitting and Trip could see the well-armed men at Raspos’ back visibly tensing, even as nearly half of the other refugees looked on.
Well, Trip reflected bitterly, so much for this being a good idea. He wondered whether there was anyone on this stupid planet not trying to start a fight.
“We have barely enough food for ourselves!” the man – Pater Undil, Trip reminded himself. “And now you expect us to feed two more mouths?”
“We will make due,” Raspos answered coldly. “See to your duties,” he ordered and fully half of the sentries turned to obey, making odd gestures with their hands that Trip took to be signs of respect. The others, though, looked to Undil who visibly bristled.
“You are no master of mine,” the stocky man hissed through clenched teeth.
“For which you should give thanks,” Raspos retorted sharply. “Were that the case I would have you beaten for insolence.” The two men glared at each other and Trip gave T’Pol a look. Her expression was rueful, almost worried, and she gave him the tiniest of nods, which he took to mean she agreed with the concern he suspected was on his face.
“We have no desire to be a burden,” T’Pol said into the tense silence. Her voice caused both of the men to start in surprise. Undil glanced once at her before blinking and giving her a second look, his eyes widening with an appreciative glint that Trip knew all too well. On instinct, Tucker shuffled closer to her, his actions instantly drawing the stocky man’s attention. Their eyes met and Trip let his … displeasure shine through.
“I do not recognize your accent,” Undil stated, shooting another glare at Raspos before turning his back on the older man. From the way the Steward’s guards reacted – eyes narrowing and hands tightening on their weapons – it was some sort of calculated insult that Trip didn’t entirely understand. Inwardly, he sighed in despair – it was just their luck to meet up with a refugee group about to self-destruct over social issues he and T’Pol barely understood. “You are outlanders,” Undil guessed.
“We only recently came to these lands,” T’Pol replied smoothly. As the stocky man’s eyes wandered, the expression on her face shifted so fractionally that Trip doubted anyone but him even noticed her displeasure over the man’s boorish behavior. Even Malcolm had been more circumspect when he was ogling her butt. “I am su’Vulcan T’Pol Tucker,” she said calmly before gripping Trip’s left bicep. According to the book on societal norms on this continent – Tandos – it was the traditional manner in which married men and women touched; Trip had likened it to the human tendency to hold hands, and T’Pol had agreed. The name she had offered – su’Vulcan – indicated both their status in society – tradesmen, which was considered slightly more important on the social scale than a lowborn farmer but still well below that of a highborn – and their ostensible city-state of origin. Her use of his family name was simple expediency: she’d told him her clan name during one of their random conversations and, even with his growing proficiency with her native tongue, Trip couldn’t even begin to pronounce it. He could only imagine how the Ekosians might react to hearing it.
Still, he tried not to think about how much he liked the sound of T’Pol Tucker.
“This is my spouse,” she continued, her lips tightening slightly before she added, “Trip.”
“Are you mute?” Undil demanded of Tucker, once more giving T’Pol a less than discreet once-over.
“No,” Trip replied. It came out so rough and hostile that T’Pol tightened her grip on his bicep in warning. “I speak tongue bad,” he continued, grimacing the moment he realized that the words came out wrong.
“If our presence is an issue,” T’Pol interrupted, directing her remarks not to Undil but to Raspos, “then we will depart.”
“Perhaps I misspoke,” Undil said quickly, offering her a smile that faltered when she studied him with the same sort of clinical dispassion she’d give a bug under a microscope. “What is your trade?” he asked abruptly.
“Fixer,” Trip replied. They had been unable to figure out the proper word for engineer – if this dialect even had one – and had settled on a close approximation.
“It is quite late,” Raspos interjected smoothly, “and we have far to go upon the morrow.”
“What is your goal?” T’Pol asked before the man could continue. “Is there anywhere safe from conflict?” The older man nodded.
“Yes,” he said. “There are some … lodges in the mountains to the southwest that will be our sanctuary.” Undil and his cohorts glowered, which prompted Trip to suspect these lodges were not well-regarded by the lowborn farmers. Idly, he wondered if they were anything like the dachas in ancient Soviet Russia … and how the hell had he even remembered that little tidbit of information? He decided to blame it on T’Pol’s freaky but surprisingly useful mind training. Why, just the other day, he’d recited the entire Starfleet charter from memory and he’d only given it a cursory glance once while in college. “They are remote and far from the Alliance’s war,” Raspos continued. “We will be safe there for a time.”
“I am sure we can find a use for you,” Undil remarked with another leer. The feel of T’Pol tightening her grip on his arm was the only thing that kept Trip from responding. “For both of you,” the stocky man continued, his eyes once again meeting Tucker’s.
The impromptu gathering broke up shortly afterward, with the sentries returning to their duties while Raspos disappeared into a tent that looked of slightly better quality than the others strung up. Undil loitered around one of the firepits, doing a poor job hiding his observation of T’Pol while she helped Trip set up their rudimentary sleeping area. With each second that passed, the stiffness in her spine increased even as Tucker fought down the growing urge to simply shoot the stocky man. He waited until their jury-rigged tent was complete and T’Pol had slid inside before turning his furious gaze on Undil.
“Your spouse is very beautiful, sut’Vulcan Trip Tucker” the man said with another leer that caused Trip to tighten his hands into a fist.
“Yes,” he replied. “Mine,” he added through clenched teeth, hoping T’Pol couldn’t hear him. “Not yours.”
“No harm was meant,” the man said with a smile that didn’t touch his eyes and didn’t sound remotely sincere. “I was merely … admiring your spouse.” Trip glowered.
“If harm you wish,” he retorted roughly, “then keep … admiring.” Undil’s eyes widened and he took in Trip’s stance before offering a tight nod and turning away. Tucker watched him until he disappeared into his own ragged tent before glancing back at his sleep area. Their packs were concealed underneath the cloth tarp now suspended between two leafless trees by a thin but sturdy line of cord they’d stolen from the Zeons, but he still couldn’t shake his uneasiness with how vulnerable the entire position was. This was not going to end well.
“What a jackass,” Trip muttered under his breath in English as he crawled into the tent. Already wrapped up in their blankets, T’Pol gave him an appraising look. “He’s gonna be trouble.” She pursed her lips.
“Agreed,” she murmured.
“Which part?” he asked with a tight smile that, to his shock, she came dangerously close to returning. Trip blinked the moment away – she had been doing that a lot recently, and while he loved seeing her show emotion, he wasn’t sure what it meant. Sure, he’d learned enough about Vulcan culture to know that, if the emotions weren’t there in the first place, they wouldn’t need to be suppressed in the first place, but was it a good thing that she had started letting her control lapse around him? With the way her hands trembled from time to time, or how often she suffered from headaches, it was just another one of those mysteries about T’Pol that he wanted to uncover but didn’t know where to begin asking.
“Both, I suspect,” she replied softly as she lifted the blankets up so he could slide under them. “I am beginning to regret not declining Dahnel Raspos’ offer to join him.”
“Yeah,” Trip grumbled as he tried to get comfortable on the lumpy ground. “Who knew we’d be walking onto the set of Jus in Bello?” he asked rhetorically. At her questioning look, he added, “Eugenics War movie about a band of soldier-refugees. Swept the awards a couple of years back.”
“I see,” she said. The moment he stopped moving, she slid closer and placed her head on his chest like she had dozens of times before in the months since they crashed here. Trip felt another pang of desire shoot through him, but he pushed it down and frowned.
T’Pol was shivering.
“You okay?” he asked. “It’s not that cold.”
“I know,” she replied with a flash of actual irritation in her voice, “but that does not mitigate the fact that I am having difficulty getting warm.” Concern washed away the amorous thoughts that always plagued him when they were together like this, and Trip began rubbing her back, hoping that it might help.
“Do Vulcans get sick?” he asked. “If you picked up a bug,” he continued, “that might explain why your hands are always shaking and the headaches you keep getting.” The effect his words had on her was immediate: she tensed and drew in a sharp breath. Trip looked down and found her staring at him with open fear in her eyes. “T’Pol?” he whispered, swallowing the lump that lodged itself in his throat at the sight of such naked emotion on her face. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
“I need to tell you something,” she said after a moment. Her mask of controlled poise was back, but Trip could hear the minute tremble in her voice. Whatever she was about to lay on him, he knew it was going to be big. God, he prayed silently, please don’t let her be pregnant. He figured that he could deal with anything else as long as that wasn’t the case.
But he was wrong.